"It used to be, people were afraid to talk about Social Security," President Bush said last week in Little Rock, Ark. "Now I think people should be afraid not to talk about Social Security and start coming up with some solutions."
Overhauling Social Security is Bush's top domestic priority, but the public has been losing confidence in him on the issue. In March 2001, shortly after the president began his first term, 31 percent of Americans disapproved of the way he was handling Social Security, according to a Gallup Poll. A year later, 40 percent disapproved. Now? In early January, Gallup found that a majority (52 percent) disapproved.
In his State of the Union speech, Bush warned of big trouble ahead for Social Security: "If steps are not taken ... the only solutions would be drastically higher taxes, massive new borrowing, or sudden and severe cuts in Social Security benefits or other government programs." But in the most recent Gallup Poll, only 18 percent of Americans agreed that the Social Security system is in "crisis." Most said that the system has "major problems" (53 percent), while 27 percent see only minor problems or no problems.
For his approach to succeed, Bush must convince more people that there's a crisis. To do that, he brought Andrew Biggs, associate commissioner for retirement policy at the Social Security Administration, to a public forum in Washington last month. "People make an analogy of a ship heading toward an iceberg," Biggs said. "And in a sense, you can say, 'Well, the crisis happens when the ship hits the iceberg.' But if you think about a big ship, like a big Social Security system, it doesn't turn on a dime."
The president also needs to convince people that his plan to create private Social Security accounts would solve the crisis. So far, he hasn't, even among those who agree that Social Security is facing a genuine crisis: 60 percent of them say that allowing workers to invest some of their Social Security payroll taxes in private accounts in exchange for a reduction in guaranteed benefits is a bad idea.
Even workers who say they never expect to see any Social Security benefits—half of all workers—still say that the president's plan is a bad idea.
In his State of the Union speech, Bush made his plan sound like a good deal for younger workers when he promised, "Your money will grow, over time, at a greater rate than anything the current system can deliver."
But Democrats warned of the costs. "Who will pay" for Bush's Social Security plan, Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., asked the day after the president spoke. Levin answered, "Mostly my kids and grandkids. And the benefit cuts? He didn't talk about that at all."
Actually, the president did, in a roundabout way. Bush said that fixing Social Security will require "an open, candid review of the options." He proceeded to spell them out—in every case, attributing them to others. "Some have suggested limiting benefits for wealthy retirees," Bush said. That sounds like a Democratic idea.
Bush said, "Former Congressman Tim Penny has raised the possibility of indexing benefits to prices rather than wages." Penny was a Democrat when he served in Congress. (In 2002, Penny unsuccessfully ran for governor of Minnesota as the Independence Party candidate.)
Bush said, "During the 1990s, my predecessor, President Clinton, spoke of increasing the retirement age." Clinton's a Democrat, of course.
And Bush said, "Former Sen. John Breaux suggested discouraging early collection of Social Security benefits." The Louisianan is also a Democrat.
More Bush: "The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan recommended changing the way benefits are calculated." Moynihan was a Democrat from New York.
Those are all tough choices. Bush said, "All these ideas are on the table." In other words, I'm not going to make those tough choices by myself.
Any of those choices would really be hard on some current retirees or some workers near retirement. But Bush reassured older Americans, saying, "I have a message for every American who is 55 or older: Do not let anyone mislead you. For you, the Social Security system will not change in any way."
Yet fewer than one-third of Americans 55 or older support the idea of private Social Security accounts. Nearly half of younger Americans are open to the idea.
Bush faces a political problem: The more someone cares about Social Security and depends on its continued existence, the less likely she or he is to support his proposal for private accounts. Young people, who don't expect much from Social Security, are fairly friendly to Bush's plan. Seniors oppose it. Higher-income people, who don't expect to rely on Social Security, think that the president's plan is OK (50 percent of those with annual incomes over $75,000 support it). Low-income people don't (only 35 percent of those earning $20,000 or less support Bush's plan).
To Bush, reducing guaranteed benefits is part of the solution to Social Security's problems. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., offered assurance "that you can have access to the personal accounts, which will grow much faster than either prices or wages," and therefore make up for any cuts. But most Americans think that reducing guaranteed Social Security benefits is not the solution. It's the problem.